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Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one


One clear lesson of the last month is that while Mitch McConnell might be an evil but extremely effective opposition leader, as a majority leader he’s mediocre at best:

The negotiations over the roughly $2-trillion economic rescue package had gone on for more than three days — hour after hour of haggling to shape one of the largest government economic interventions in U.S. history.

Finally, as Tuesday night changed to Wednesday morning, two men stepped forward to tell reporters they had reached a deal — the secretary of the Treasury and the minority leader of the Senate.

The majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was relegated to role of announcing the deal a short time later on the Senate floor.

With his mastery of rules and tactics and control over his caucus, McConnell has developed a reputation as one of the Senate’s most powerful majority leaders. But in the talks to shape the massive bailout bill, he was effectively sidelined for much of the final days as Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York negotiated.


So, last week, when Congress began drafting a third bill, McConnell took a decisive lead; unveiling a $1-trillion proposal focused on key priorities supported by Republicans and the White House. Those included hundreds of millions of dollars in direct payments to workers, but left out many low-income Americans. When Democrats and some Republicans pushed back, he created four bipartisan task forces and tasked to them to work at “warp speed” to draft language.

By Saturday, when it was clear a deal wasn’t emerging, McConnell cobbled together a version that combined parts of his original plan with what the task forces had agreed to. He tried to jam the bill through on Sunday by scheduling a procedural vote that he gambled Democrats would be forced to approve out of concern that if the bill appeared stalled, financial markets would crash on Monday morning.

“Now we’re at the point in the discussion where people will shortly have to say yes or no, and I’m confident given the desire of the country to see an outcome, that we’ll get to yes,” he told reporters in a news conference Sunday.

He miscalculated. Pelosi had returned to Washington by Saturday night; Democrats were unsatisfied with the bill McConnell had put forward and began talking about introducing one of their own. And the administration, anxious for a deal, was already reaching out to Schumer.

McConnell said Democrats should simply accept his bill. “It would be best for the country if the House would take it up and pass it just like we did earlier this week when the House passed a bill that I had only marginal participation in because the country was desperate for results,” McConnell said.

Schumer refused. Because McConnell’s bill needed the support of 60 senators to move forward, Democrats were able to block it, doing so Sunday and again Monday when McConnell tried a second time to move forward.

It’s pretty embarrassing to misjudge a vote count that badly. But it’s also reminiscent of when he couldn’t get John McCain’s vote for the top Republican legislative priority even though McCain had no substantive objection to the legislation. Basically, McConnell can hit unguarded layups when there’s a complete ex ante consensus in his conference (judges, upper-class tax cuts) and that’s about it. As a majority leader, Harry Reid he ain’t.

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